The Story of Teaching: From Sicily to Seattle

I last updated this website in 2013, shortly after moving to Seattle when I finished my Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. Much has happened since then, so I’ve spent the afternoon updating the site with links to stories from my nearly three-year stint with The Seattle Times’ Education Lab project as well as updates to my resume and biography.

The new banner photo is the view from Erice, a medieval, mountaintop village in Sicily that his hope to the Ettore Majorana Centre for Scientific Culture.  I was invited there in the summer of 2013 to talk there at The Eighth International Summer School on Mind, Brain and Education. The title of my presentation was “A journalist’s quest to understand how teaching makes us human.”

In September of 2013, I began working for The Seattle Times, where I wrote in-depth stories about the neuroscience of reading, the relationship between emotions and thinking in the classroom, and the benefits of professional mental health coaching to prevent expulsions from preschool (see the Stories tab for links to those stories and many more). I completed my contract on July 1, 2016 and I’m now working on a book-length journalism project about the new science of teaching.


Martha Farah and the neuroscience of poverty

CNN has a nice profile of Martha Farah and her work exploring the impact of poverty (socioeconomic status-SES) on brain development. Much of educational neuroscience isn’t ready yet for prime time, but among its greatest contributions so far is a deeper understanding of the impact of stress and low literacy on developing young minds. Farah runs the Neuroscience Boot Camp at Penn, which I attended in 2011. The 10-day intensive seminar helped prepare me for my Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. Here’s a sample of the profile, which you should read in full.

For much of her career, Farah continued studying vision and memory. That subject is far more controlled and better understood than what she’s doing now, which involves looking at the brain’s response to circumstances of social class.

She got interested in questions of the brain and social class when she started hiring baby sitters for her daughter, now 17. Among the women she hired to take care of her daughter were single mothers on welfare who were making extra money by baby-sitting. In the scientific literature, they would be called “low SES” — in other words, low socioeconomic status.

Farah watched over time how the lives of the baby sitters and their children were different from her own.

“I actually became pretty obsessed with social class, this major dimension of variation in the human race and certainly in American society,” Farah said.

As sociological studies have corroborated, it seemed to Farah that child-rearing and children’s early experience was very different depending on social class.

Poor children don’t get as much exposure to language as their wealthier counterparts, research has found, and they tend to get more negative feedback. What they do hear is not as grammatically complex, with a narrower range of vocabulary. There is less understanding of how children develop and what they need for cognitive development, Farah said.

Stress is another huge factor in these disparities.

Parents of low socioeconomic status have uncertainty about having basic needs met, dangerous neighborhoods, crowding and other factors, causing stress for children and their parents. Stressed parents are less patient and affectionate, further stressing their children, according to Farah.

Farah wanted to investigate the huge differences she saw.

“We’re so segregated by class, we don’t even realize we’re segregated because we don’t even know what life is like just two miles north of here,” she said.


Test scores and magical thinking

The education reform movement has long painted a gloomy picture of how American kids perform on international tests and on our own “gold standard” of testing, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The standard story is this: we once ruled the world in education, but we’ve been in decline and we’re falling further behind. At best, our test scores have been flat for decades while the rest of the world is catching up fast.

The degree to which these tests actually measure learning, or are at least based on a theory of learning, is very much open to debate.  But if we’re going to use these tests, let’s report what the data actually say. Kids are doing extraordinarily better on these tests, especially in math, than they did in decades past. I said so in this story for the Akron Beacon Journal.  The NAEP scores of all students have improved dramatically, but the scores for black and Hispanic students are still too low. Usually we hear about the low scores without hearing about the improvement. We need to hold both things in mind at the same time, especially when so-called reformers are eager to privatize education in order to save it.

Bob Somerby, author of The Daily Howler, blogs with mordant humor bordering on despair about the mainstream press corps’ failure to inform our national political discussion. I started reading Somerby, who once taught in the Baltimore schools,  a few years ago because I liked his analysis of education coverage. He’s been especially critical of how test scores get reported.

Bob’s post today at the Howler has the relevant data from international tests. You may be surprised to learn that on the 2009 PISA, U.S. kids on average scored higher in reading than the U.K., France and Germany (though yes, Korea, Finland and Canada scored higher). If you disaggregate those scores by race, American white students are third behind Korea and Finland, slightly better than Canada. However,  U.S. Hispanic students score a little higher than Turkey and U.S. black students are closer to Mexico at the bottom of the list.

Read the whole thing. Somerby paints a complicated picture that shows that we have an astonishing degree of variability in our schools, which appears to be driven by race and class.  That variability gets lost in an average score. He raises a good question about the Common Core, which imposes new, tougher uniform standards in 45 states that have signed on to get federal money through President Obama’s Race to the Top competition. If students can’t meet the standards we have now, will they meet the higher standards because we all will have higher expectations for them? Doesn’t that sound like magical thinking?



Harvard professor to study the effects of billingualism on learning

Congratulations to Gigi Luk of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is among the new class of postdoctoral fellows recently selected by the National Academy of Education. She will receive $55,000 for an academic year of research. Luk studies how speaking more than one language improves brain function in other areas such as attention and executive control in typically developing children. She is now interested in how billingualism affects children with learning disabilities. Here’s the National Academy of Education’s description of her research goals:

Bilingualism and Reading Difficulty: An Interaction Between Life Experience and Reading Development
Being bilingual may confer cognitive advantages beyond communicative purposes. Research has shown bilinguals outperform monolingual peers on tasks assessing executive functions, a set of skills critical for efficient goal-oriented control of attention and other cognitive resources. Simultaneously, bilingual toddlers and elementary school children’s single language proficiency is often found to be inferior to their monolingual peers. These seemingly contradictory consequences of bilingual experience have been studied extensively in typically developing children. However, it is unclear whether the cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism also apply to atypically developing populations, particularly those who have reading difficulty. If the experience of managing two languages enhances executive functions skills, then bilinguals with reading difficulty may enjoy compensatory cognitive benefits in processes relating to reading from their bilingual experience. Alternatively, bilingualism may be a cognitive burden and further hinder reading development for struggling readers.

Previous research has examined the roles of Spanish and English representations in short-term memory, visual-spatial and language memory in English Language Learners who speak Spanish as the first language and are learning English as a second language. However, little education research has been conducted on bilingual children who are functional bilinguals and speak a non-Spanish language in addition to English. To complement prior research focusing on English Language Learners, this project will involve bilingual children who are fluent in two alphabetic languages and report using both languages on a daily basis, similar to those who have been reported to show cognitive advantages in previous research.


Personal stories from science more memorable than facts alone

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has an interesting post about a study showing that middle school students remembered the information in a text about Galileo or Marie Curie significantly better if the information was presented in the form of a personal story about the scientist’s struggles rather than the typical textbook expository style. We professional storytellers, especially science journalists, have long believed that was the case.

You don’t have to think of narrative just as the story of an individual or group of people; you can think more abstractly conflict, complications, and the eventual resolution of conflict as the core of narrative structure.
I prefer to think of narrative in this broader sense because it is more flexible, and gives teachers more options, and also better captures the aspects of narrative structure that I suspect are behind the advantage conferred.

Literacy changes brains, literally

Stanislas Dehaene has a nice piece in Cerebrum, from the Dana Foundation, on how the human brain must be rewired to take advantage of one of humankind’s most profound inventions: literacy.

Learning to read is a major event in a child’s life. Cognitive neuroscience shows why: compared to the brain of an illiterate person, the literate brain is massively changed, mostly for the better—through the enhancement of the brain’s visual and phonological areas and their interconnections—but also slightly for the worse, as the displacement of the brain’s face-recognition circuits reduces the capacity for mirror invariance. Once children learn to read, their brains are literally different.

Teaching a child to read literally changes her brain for survival in the modern economy of the 21st century. Would we respect teaching a little more if we called it noninvasive brain surgery? Wouldn’t we want to understand it better scientifically?

Now that we understand exactly which circuits are changed by reading education, we may start thinking about how to optimize this process, particularly for children who struggle in school.

Dehaene’s books on numeracy, The Number Sense, and literacy, Reading in the Brain, are both well worth reading to get a deeper understanding of his hypothesis that existing brain architecture is slightly re-purposed (neuronal recycling) to create new circuits for processing the symbolic languages of written speech and precise calculation.

Autism redefined in DSM V, but don’t panic (yet)

Parents of children with autism are worried about changes in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), which will be  published by the American Psychiatric Association this month. The manual defines the symptoms that characterize a particular condition or behavior and influences what services insurance companies pay for and what schools must provide.

The new DSM acknowledges that Autism is a spectrum by replacing subgroups such as Asperger’s Disorder, Autistic Disorder, and Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) with a single umbrella condition called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The new DSM also recognizes that autism can occur with or without language disorder and may not necessarily show up in early childhood, depending on when social demands overwhelm a person’s ability to cope with them (see PLOS Biology cite below).

Some worry that the elimination of specific subgroups might make the new diagnosis criteria too stringent for some children See this 2012 New York Times story.

The advocacy organization Autism Speaks has an accessible FAQ for basics, including this key point:

First, all individuals who currently have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger syndrome or PDD-NOS, will not lose their ASD diagnosis.  In other words, if you have a diagnosis for ASD, you have a diagnosis of ASD for your life and should be entitled to appropriate interventions for the rest of your life.  Need for individualized services may change, and you or your child may need different levels of support or different interventions as you or your child age.

No one should be reevaluated or “lose” their diagnosis because of administrative reasons of the DSM-5.

Second, the revisions are intended to more reliably capture all those who would have legitimately received a diagnosis of ASD under DSM-IV. The intent is not to exclude or reduce the number of individuals being diagnosed. However, there is a need for ongoing monitoring of how the DSM-5 criteria affect diagnosis, especially those adults and very young children, two groups for whom we still have relatively little information. The committee has stressed that the new DSM-5 criteria represent a “living document,” in which changes can and likely will be made as new studies are conducted.

PLOS Biology published this paper last month by researchers, including much-cited expert Simon Baron-Cohen, offering a balanced commentary of the pros and cons. The conclusion is a nice re-statement of this adage: if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. Individual variability cannot be averaged away.

DSM-5 ASD criteria should be commended for its clearer symptom descriptions and grouping, for acknowledging the spectrum nature of autism, and for recognizing the dynamic nature of development and how individuals interact with their environment. Moreover, for clinical purposes a unitary label of ASD may be beneficial in planning the support systems for all individuals “on the spectrum” who require help from education and health- and social-care systems. However, it is important to remember that autism is not homogenous, and defining it using the umbrella term ASD risks whitewashing the evident heterogeneity, which has a substantial impact for research into this condition. The identification of core features of autism using the broader ASD label cannot overcome the existence of heterogeneity. It has simply moved us from the level of subgroups (“apples and oranges”) to the prototypical level (“fruit”). We argue that to make progress in autism research, and ultimately to improve clinical practice, we need to move forward in the identification of subgroups within the autism spectrum.

The consensus appears to be one of caution about how the new definitions will be applied in practical terms in clinics and school settings. Basically, wait and see before hitting the panic button.

Dana Foundation warns of neuroscience fraud

The Dana Foundation has a reputation for translating neuroscience for the lay public without hype or distortion. This article in Dana’s publication, Cerebrum, warns that scientists themselves need to do a better job of peer review.

In my opinion, it is likely that the field of neuroscience is detecting only the tip of the fraud iceberg. Even though most scientists conduct their research impeccably, there is more misconduct than journal editors and the scientific community detect. This is mainly because cheating can be difficult to uncover.

Click here for the story by Stephen J. Lisberger.

The Story of Teaching begins today

Today is the official last day of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT where I have been researching the biological foundations of human teaching and learning since last August. Yesterday afternoon, we had a small graduation ceremony in the office of the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I have had an incredible nine months of exploration and discovery researching the emerging field of educational neuroscience that is now commonly called Mind, Brain and Education or MBE. I have used this time at MIT and Harvard to develop sources and story ideas to chronicle this exciting collaboration between educators and scientists in many diverse disciplines to better understand the role of teaching in development and learning. You can read more about the mission of this web site under the “About”  tab.


John Higgins with MIT President L. Rafael Reif


And here is the graduated 30th class of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT